Vintage WD: 8 Ingredients of Powerful Nonfiction

An editor and freelance writer demonstrates how to make your articles more intriguing, more entertaining, more salable—and just plain better in this article from 1989.
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Writer's Digest, September 1989

By Linton Weeks

Vintage WD_Weeks 11:19

We as nonfiction writers must constantly ask ourselves how we can make our stories more provocative, more challenging, more delightful, more—dare we say it?—readable.

Much has been written about using fiction techniques—plot, points of view, character development, irony—to make for better, more readable, nonfiction. Beyond those techniques, how can we make our nonfiction more powerful, able to get at universal truths, and change the world and all that stuff? Here are eight things that just might help:

Attitude

There are eight things that will make your nonfiction story more powerful. That's my opinion, my attitude. And an attitude is a good thing to begin with when you sit down to write a piece of nonfiction. Don't just write a story about air pollution in a metro area; tell us "Why Tacoma Stinks"—and in doing so, teach us about the city's ecological dilemma. Rather than give a bland description of a new bed-and-breakfast in Kentucky, tell us that the B&B has the best bed, the worst breakfast, or the crummiest management of any you've ever seen.

When Robert Sam Anson signed on with Manhattan, inc. to profile New Jersey Senatorial candidate Pete Dawkins, he approached the story with a certain amount of naiveté. Anson had always idolized Dawkins, who has been a football star, a military big-shot, and a successful Wall Street businessman. "There was so much public-relations-fed hype," wrote Manhattan, inc. editor Clay Felker, "that Anson began to wonder about the real man behind the myth." Anson said of Dawkins: "I read the press clips back to 1957, and there was never a discouraging word. He has brought problems on himself, but he was also victimized by the press and senior officers who needed a positive public image for the army at a time when things were going against it. By now he has become the image itself, with very few flashes of the man underneath."

Anson continued: "I would wake up in the middle of the night agonizing about this story, over the effect it would have on him and the effect on an American hero. God knows the country needs them. I knew I would have to give this story my best shot. That's why I interviewed so many sources, but I kept hearing the same opinions, over and over." And by the time he sat down to write the story, Anson was of the same opinion held by many of those he had interviewed: Dawkins is more style than substance. Anson's opinion of Dawkins fell considerably; the piece reflects this attitude. Here's an excerpt:

Dawkins's supporters wrote off most of the barbs to jealousy, and clearly, there was a lot of it. But even among his backers, there was acknowledgment that Dawkins, with his seemingly unslakable thirst for attention combined with his insistence that talents like him ought not to be compelled to traverse the usual army hoops, was making his own life difficult. "Pete is clearly ambitious," says a senior officer who knows him well. "'Me question has always been, Ambitious for what? Himself or to make things better? With Pete, it's hard to know. You always have the feeling that he is putting on an act. It is a very good act, a very competent act that touches all the bases, but you still don't know what is behind it."

Anson's attitude is obviously skeptical, and by his presentation of the facts, his skepticism is passed on to the reader, who begins to question Dawkins's character. Apparently, Manhattan, inc. readers were not the only ones to look askance at Pete Dawkins, because Dawkins was defeated in his Senatorial bid in November 1988. Some say Anson's piece, and his attitude, turned the tide.

Scenery

An attitude, however, isn't worth a tinker's damn if the reader doesn't believe you know your subject. To secure the trust of your reader, you must show—not tell—that you know what you're talking about. That you've been there. That the subject's eyes are dark blue, her hair is the color of straw, her legs are lanky, and her movements are like those of a ballerina.

According to Tom Wolfe, this "recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking, and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene ... is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature." And that power of realism is found in the best nonfiction. But rather than lapsing into list-making, hoping that the accretion of detail will strengthen his portrait, the most forceful nonfiction writer looks for the significant details that best illustrate the essence, the spirit of his subject.

Here is a telling paragraph from Lynn Hirschberg's "The Office," about office dynamics (Esquire, February 1986):

Noble Hook is very tall, has blond hair that clears his shoulders, and rarely wears anything other than black jeans, tennis shoes, and a thrift-store bowling shirt. He is 25, has worked at Dancer [Dancer Fitzgerald Sample—a Manhattan advertising agency] nearly three years, and makes $50,000 a year as a writer and art director for ads. His office is full of plastic blow-up toys—beach balls and robots and seals. Noble's office is a great source of talk around Dancer. Clients curl into their chairs during meetings there so as not to disturb a blow-up mermaid or an inflated rat."

The scene is set, and when Noble's immaturity affects his rise on the corporate ladder, no one, including the reader, is surprised.

Reportage

Gathering great scenes takes time and patience. When Lynn Hirschberg wrote "The Office," she spent three days a week at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample for almost three months. "I followed people around, interviewed anyone I got hold of," she told editor Lee Eisenberg. "I wasn't given a desk, which was fine. I wanted to be as invisible as possible. But I was given nearly total access, which enabled my reporting to be as exhaustive—and exhausting—as any I've ever attempted." Through her relentless reportage, Hirschberg was able to give the reader a glimpse into how an ad agency operates—both its creative genius and its backbiting pettiness. She was able to explore a world that for most of us is as alien as Pluto. Hirschberg, for instance, delved into the backbiting and petty politics of the office in scenes such as this one:

Stephen Dolleck is at the office, on the phone with Julie Picard. "OK," he says. "Let's talk it out. You wanna do it? OK— come on back." He hangs up the phone. "She's pissed," he says.

This meeting, Stephen explains as he nervously paces the width of his office, is really a confrontation. He has been angry with Julie lately. "She has such a sucky attitude," Stephen says, sprinkling a few drops of Binaca on his tongue. She is also angry at him, which Stephen attributes to jealousy over Terry's promotion and a lingering crush he is certain Julie has on him. "I mean, what the hell is wrong?" he says. "If you're unhappy, then look for a new job." Stephen plops onto his couch, resting briefly before she gets there. "I'm very aware of politics," he says. "You know—having her on my territory versus going into hers, standing up or sitting down. I always sit on something in Dallas's office so I'm taller. You know what I'm saying?"

Most of us have neither the luxury nor the expense money to spend time immemorial working on a story such as "The Office." Nor are we paid enough. We're usually lucky to make enough on a piece to buy a long weekend. But we can use our time wisely—interview as many people and investigate as many scenes as possible—to make our reportage more authentic … and our story more powerful.

Facts

Paul Hoffman's “The Man Who Loves Only Numbers" (The Atlantic Monthly, November 1987) is a powerful piece of nonfiction. It's a profile of Paul Erdos (pronounced "air-dish"), a brilliant and eccentric mathematician. Hoffman tells us that Erdos has structured his life to maximize the amount of time he has for mathematics. He has no wife or children, no job, no hobbies, not even a home to tie him down. He lives out of a shabby suitcase and a drab orange plastic bag from … a large department store in Budapest. In a never-ending search for good mathematical problems and fresh mathematical talent, Erdos crisscrosses four continents at a frenzied pace, moving from one university or research center to the next. His modus operandi is to show up on the doorstep of an esteemed mathematician, declare 'My brain is open,' work with his host for a day or two, until he's bored or his host is run down, and then move on to another home."

Hoffman does a wonderful job of letting us, the readers, spend time with Erdos. We see him ordering fried squid balls at a restaurant and then drawing cryptic sketches of rockets and hula hoops on the back of the placemat; we learn of his undiagnosed skin condition that compels him to wear only silk underwear and to wash his hands dozens of times a day; we look on as his friends wash his underwear and section his grapefruit for him.

But the most astonishing thing is that, while we read of Erdos's singular behavior, we learn about the history of mathematics—about Euclid and Pythagoras, about prime and twin prime numbers, about integers, perfect numbers, friendly numbers, the Ramsey theory, and a host of mathematical information. If this data had been presented as straight-on facts, they would have been impossible to swallow, but in the context of learning about Erdos's personality, the facts become fascinating. And conversely, because Hoffman teaches us about math as we read, the portrait of Erdos becomes more intriguing. Here's an example from the piece:

The prime numbers are Erdos's intimate friends. He understands them better than anyone else does. "When I was 10," he says, "my father told me about Euclid's proof, and I was hooked." Seven years later, as a college freshman, he caused a stir in Hungarian mathematics circles with a simple proof that a prime can always be found between any integer (greater than 1) and its double. This result had been proved in about 1850 by one of the fathers of Russian mathematics, Pafnuty Lvovitch Chebyshev. But Chebyshev's proof was too heavy-handed to be in the Book. He had used a steam shovel to transplant a rose-bush, whereas Erdos managed with a silver spoon. News of Erdos's youthful triumph was spread by the ditty "Chebyshev said it, and I say it again/There is always a prime between n and 2n."

We read nonfiction to learn something about the world. Hoffman's masterpiece of nonfiction, which won a 1988 National Magazine Award, does exactly what Samuel Johnson said good literature must: it teaches and delights.

Fiction

How can fiction make for better nonfiction? According to Gay Talese, "Since my earliest days in journalism, I was far less interested in the exact words that came out of people's mouths than in the essence of their meaning." In other words, Talese is not telling the nonfiction writer to make things up. He is, however, urging the reporter not to let facts get in the way of the truth. Reconstructing scenes, getting at the essence of what people are saying, divining people's thoughts—these activities are no longer solely the domain of the fiction writer. The nonfiction writer can also use these devices to his advantage. Granted, it's risky business to speak of tampering with the straightforward facts in a reporting piece, but it's essential to understanding what makes for powerful nonfiction.

Let's take a moment to examine the apparent contradiction here. How can a nonfiction piece be strengthened by a fictional approach? Suppose you spend two weeks researching a piece on prostitution, and you and your editor decide that the best way to present the story is as "A Day in the Life of a Prostitute." To merely recapitulate a routine day in the hooker's life might not get at the essence of your subject. But, taking a hint from the novelist, if you were to telescope your two weeks into one day—an intriguing, but not necessarily atypical, day—the story might be much more compelling—if, as we'll see in a moment, the reader knows you are compressing time.

A journalism critic once observed that Hunter S. Thompson is "the most factual and least accurate reporter we have." His point was that Thompson might not have put quotes down verbatim or rendered scenes exactly as they happened, but he accurately portrayed what his subject meant to say and the spirit in which his subject acted.

In the March 7, 1988, issue of Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford wrote a nonfiction piece about University of Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson as a one-act stage play.

Early in the play, Richardson's grandmother rises from her rocking chair on stage and says, "Nolan and his sisters lived with me ever since his poor momma died when he was only 3. And his daddy died when Nolan was 12. We lived here in this old shotgun house—just this room and the two more, straight back. But we got ourselves an indoor toilet this time. And usually there's enough to eat. I work at a place makes fried chicken, and sometimes I can bring these leftovers home." Richardson's grandmother may indeed have said those words at one time, but there's no way Deford could have heard them. Richardson's grandmother has been dead for years.

Writing about Deford's unusual nonfiction techniques, publisher Donald J. Barr explained that "incidental events were telescoped in time, composite scenes formed, transitional and narrative dialogue created. Deford also fashioned some of the speeches made by dead people…" Deford said: "I chose to do it this way simply because Coach Richardson's life has been so expressive and dramatic. I felt that the travails and tragedy—and the triumphs—would be more vivid in this form." The piece is vivid and artful and powerful. Used wisely, a certain amount of fictional truth can improve a piece of ordinary nonfiction.

Substantiation

Of course, there are levels of fact. And it is imperative that the nonfiction writer know when to stick to the actual, no matter how mundane it may be. The nonfiction reporter should not make up quotes, or situations, or descriptions that lead the reader away from the truth of the story.

For instance, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for her nonfiction exposé of a young heroin addict. Upon investigation, however, it was discovered that no such person existed—and the Pulitzer was taken away from her. The subject of Cooke's story was a composite of addicts. Now, why was Cooke's creating a composite wrong, while my previous example of compressing two weeks in the life of a prostitute into a single typical day would be OK? Because Cooke led readers to believe that the composite person was a real person, that such an unfortunate was living on the streets. If she had told the truth about the people she met, chances are her piece would have been just as strong. For that matter, if she had simply told readers that she had created a composite, no one would have questioned her. In any case, had Cooke been writing her article for a good magazine, her sins would have been uncovered by a fact-checker.

Just to be sure that the magazine writer adheres to the truth, many magazines have research departments—fact-checking departments. Be prepared to face the fact-checkers. Get the facts right in the first place, and keep records of how you obtained the facts—interview transcripts, photocopies of printed materials, and so on—in the second.

Don’t look at a fact-checker’s queries as an annoyance, or as a signal that you aren’t being trusted. Understand that the researcher’s job is to double-check the facts of the story to protect the magazine, yes, but also to protect the writer, who in most cases, is legally liable for what he writes, and in all cases, does not want to look sloppy or silly.

Nonfiction master John McPhee is a meticulous documentarian of fact. According to William L. Howarth, editor of The John McPhee Reader, “McPhee strives for total accuracy, hoping the checkers will not catch a flatfooted error.”

Understatement

Writing emotionally is risky. Trying to evoke emotions in your writing is deadly. Perhaps the best way to write emotionally is to not write emotionally at all, but to find something extraordinarily emotional and write about it with understatement. As a device, understatement can be used to drive home tragedy, poignance, sadness, terror, and humor. Here's an example of the latter from Donald Katz's masterpiece, "The King of the Ferret Leggers," which appeared in Outside in February/March, 1983:

Basically, the contest [ferret legging] involves the tying of the competitor's trousers at the ankles and the subsequent insertion into those trousers of a couple of peculiarly vicious fur-coated, footlong carnivores called ferrets. The brave contestant's belt is then pulled tight, and he proceeds to stand there in front of the judges as long as he can, while animals with claws like hyperdermic needles and teeth like number 16 carpet tacks try their damnedest to get out.

The entire fantastic ferret-legging story is rife with understatement and from this subdued approach emerges a powerfully funny—and terrifying—piece about the weirdest, most masochistic sport on earth.

Conflict

The best nonfiction writers know the difference between a topic and a story. Nobody wants to read 50 words, much less 2,000, on a topic. But if you can tell a good story, the reader will stay with you as long as it takes.

What makes a good story? We've talked about some of the things: attitude, good reporting, engaging the senses. And how could you not read on about ferret legging? But every great story, every story that is compelling to read, contains conflict. Good versus evil. How someone overcame obstacles to endure and prevail.

None of us enjoys stories that are all goodness and light, because we know that life is not all goodness and light. Conversely, none of us revels in a story that is all malevolence and malfeasance. In such tales, we look for hope and redemption. The conflict between the way things are and the way things ought to be makes for the most compelling and most powerful nonfiction.

In the examples I've given in this article, we see conflict between Pete Dawkins the man and Pete Dawkins the myth; between creative people at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample; between extraordinary Paul Erdos and the ordinary world around him; between some odd competitors and the ferrets whose only wish is to escape.

For many of us, however, the real conflict is between the way we write and the way we'd like to write. But maybe if we can keep some of these eight things in mind the next time we sit down to face a blank page of paper, we'll be able to write a piece of nonfiction that pierces the heart of the reader in a most provocative and entertaining way.

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. 

Research, interview, and explore the subjects that interest you. Then write about what you've learned in Writing Nonfiction 101: Fundamentals. 

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